Alaska, by train: Ticket to the Last Frontier

 
LA Times | Travel
 

Seward, Alaska The Alaska Railroad slices up the middle of the state like a bolt of blue and yellow lightning, into the belly of a place that is camera-ready and bountiful beyond belief. The rail line begins in the little seaport of Seward, chug-a-lugs up to Anchorage, past Denali ...

By Chris Erskine // 07.16.08
 

Seward, Alaska

The Alaska Railroad slices up the middle of the state like a bolt of blue and yellow lightning, into the belly of a place that is camera-ready and bountiful beyond belief.

The rail line begins in the little seaport of Seward, chug-a-lugs up to Anchorage, past Denali National Park and Preserve and finally to Fairbanks, an almost 500-mile jaunt of day trips throughout Alaska's short, short summer.

Why the train? Because, unless you're a moose or have moose tendencies, parts of the 49th state are accessible only by rail.

Why the train? Well, does your rental car come with a bartender? Or a fresh-faced young tour guide? The train is also an affordable throwback -- comfy, almost clubby, with way more wiggle room than a 737 and none of the flight crew psychosis.

Why the train? Because your dog sled is in the shop. Honestly, quit asking so many questions and climb aboard.

SCENIC SEWARD

This wet and snowy town was Russian soil until U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward stole Alaska for a song in 1867. (Can you imagine the course of world events had he not?)

Today, Seward is a major cruise hub and the southernmost point of the state-owned rail line.

Tourists from the cruise ships hop aboard here, as do day-trippers down from Anchorage. About 6 p.m., I do too as the eight-car train pulls away from the little depot and curls its way north.

Right out of the chute, this is just the sort of dramatic scenery I'd always envisioned. I loved Alaska before I ever set foot here in June. I fell for its pictures, as if it were some sort of mail-order bride.

Never been? Imagine a more muscular California. Imagine the state film director Peter Jackson would create had he a blank check: glaciers, waterfalls, gushing gorges and wildlife just everywhere.

"Black bear off to the right," one of the train guides says.

Seats are assigned, but you're free to roam the train to find a better spot or scout a better vantage point: window, dome car, the open vestibules between trains. Half a million passengers use the Alaska Railroad each year, but there is no crush for space on this late-June trip. Even in coach, the cars are roomy, bright, with an elegant retro feel.

The railroad is known for its easy pace, stopping for animal sightings or glacier views. Mileposts mark the way, and maps delivered by the teenage guides make it easy to plot your progress.

At Mile 50, we hit a series of S curves. At Mile 52, we pass Spencer Glacier, named for a railroad employee who fell into a crevasse and died in 1914.

"Black bears in the middle of the tracks, scurrying to the left," a guide announces over the public-address system.

By the way, here's another reason for "Why the train?": Because there are lots of great places to sneak a nap -- the beach, the opera -- but none better than aboard a lumbering train after a late-afternoon Bloody Mary.

At about Mile Marker 78, I nod off like a grizzly bear.

ANCHORAGE STOP

Just to be clear, the Alaska Railroad does not overnight anywhere. It makes a series of day trips. So I hop off at Anchorage to spend a day or two knocking about this town of 300,000 fleece-lined souls.

Anchorage, with about half the state's population, is certainly its most urban city, but the downtown is steps away from salmon fishing and a sensational nature trail that wraps along the Cook Inlet.

I spend a morning in the modest downtown, checking out the gift shops and restaurants along 4th Avenue. The free wooden trolleys stick to local businesses in town; the red trolleys, $15 for an hourlong tour, give you a wider view of the city.

For me, the best stop is Mulcahy Stadium, where the Alaska Baseball League features some of the best college players in the nation (these are Alaska's Durham Bulls). Admission is $5, hot dog $3.

A half an hour south of town is another only-in-Alaska venue. At a sensational turnout called Bird Point, you'll find rare bore tides, a breaking wave that rushes up an inlet in places with extreme tidal changes. There are only 60 places in the world with bore tides and only a few that are as dramatic as this -- on an arm of the Cook Inlet, surrounded by mountains. Whales sometimes follow the tide, and seals frolic in the waves.

Ten minutes south, at the Silvertip Grill in Girdwood, slabs of reindeer lasagna as big as small appliances are being served.

I like Girdwood. I like reindeer. I kick myself the next few days for missing it on the menu. But the halibut is out of this world. This whole state seems out of this world.

ON TO DENALI

North we go, like a lovesick salmon.

This next run, Anchorage to Denali National Park, is strikingly different from the Seward leg -- flatter, with thick forests of birch and spruce. The state's quirky history is laid out before you here, and it's easy to get a sense of how settlers spread north in search of gold, solitude, coal and adventure.

Across an arm of the Cook Inlet, you'll spot Mt. Susitna, the "Sleeping Lady." The inlet itself is hemmed with mud flats -- glacial silt. Think of this as wet concrete. Stay off the flats, the locals say. If you get stuck there, you'll drown in the raging tides.

"Moose off to the right," a tour guide reports. "Look for trumpet swans and beaver along here."

At Mile 227, we stop for a moment in Talkeetna, a town with one parking meter. (Think "Northern Exposure.") In 1923, President Harding drove an honorary spike for the railroad here; he died a week later. Lore had it that his wife poisoned him during his stay, but doctors later said he died of a stroke or a heart attack.

After Talkeetna, I drop by the dining car for a serving of Kodiak Stew ($18), a hearty blend of reindeer, buffalo and beef served in a big bread bowl. No poison here. It is one of the best meals of the entire journey, train or not. Also on the menu is the Engineer's Special ($17), a pot roast served in a red wine sauce, with beef so tender you could cut it with your napkin.

After an eight-hour trip, we're nearing Denali, nesting spot of Mt. McKinley.

A DAY IN THE PARK

Every time I enter one of America's popular parks, I am reminded that we are primarily a nation of weenies, except for you and me, and I'm not so sure about you sometimes. We pour into our national parks in tour buses and RVs, struggling to finish lunch while we walk, grunting at the nice ranger to wait up.

Our suitcases are on wheels and so are we. Most of us would rather ride a bus into a national park than walk its incredible trails.

But I'm not one to criticize. The result of all our sedentary tendencies is a series of modestly confusing tour-bus choices for Denali (reservations [800] 622-7275, www.reservedenali.com).

The ultimate tour of the park -- besides on foot -- is to climb aboard one of the planes or small helicopters. A company called Era runs helicopter tours of the park from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ( www.flightseeingtours.com, [800] 843-1947). The trips start at more than $300 -- more than you paid to ride coach on the entire Seward-to-Fairbanks rail route ($224).

But the helicopter jaunts are an unforgettable way to appreciate the majesty of this land and its crown jewel, Mt. McKinley, North America's tallest anything.

Our trip takes place after a hard rain, and the views are tremendous. We see several grizzlies, some caribou and a smattering of snow-white Dall sheep. From above, you get a real feel for the different elevations, where the tree line ends and how trickles of glacial runoff turn into raging rivers.

And there, straight ahead, as perfect as a painting, a crisp, clear portrait of Mt. McKinley.

ON TO FAIRBANKS

We're in the snout of the locomotive, the cockpit you never really see. Jerry Davis and Frank Sheppard are at the controls of the final Denali-to-Fairbanks leg. Sheppard is the engineer, and today he's calling the shots as Davis works the controls. Just after 4 p.m., Davis thumbs the horn, pushes a lever and the 4,300-horsepower locomotive eases out of the station, pointed toward the Arctic Circle.

The scenery is lush. Mountains give way to meadows and thick rolling forest. Off to the right is the Nenana River, dashing alongside the train for the first hour or two out of Denali. About 300 yards away, a large moose plows through a lake.

The train snakes its way out of Denali past the little coal mining town of Healy. This stretch of track calls for low speeds and caution. Sheppard keeps an eye on the speedometer and constantly consults notes on what speed to take at certain points along the way.

After 30 minutes in the locomotive, I work my way back to the passenger cars. For this final part of our journey, I have booked the GoldStar Service, the railroad's first-class section. It turns out to be mostly unnecessary, because coach travel is almost as big and grand.

The big draw for GoldStar: Pass- engers are seated in the upper- level dome car, and the dining car and bars are closer. For my money, book in coach and devote the $200 savings to a copter ride or a rafting trip in Denali.

END OF THE LINE

Fairbanks is the first disappointment of the trip. Little to do, and a significant part of the population appears to be descendants of Santa Claus, with billowy white beards worn as neckwear.

So, knowing what I know now, here's how I'd schedule my Alaska Railroad adventure:

* Fly into Fairbanks and catch the first train south.

* Stop for two days in Denali.

* Reboard for Anchorage, and stop there for a day or two.

* Finish up with the wondrous Anchorage-to-Seward run, saving the best scenery for last.

A ticket on the Alaska Railroad is a ticket into Alaska. You can't really miss, no matter what the itinerary.